Filial search, through the murk

Even in translation, Juan Rulfo's superb and highly influential short novel "Pedro Paramo" is a powerful, haunting experience. Published in 1955, this famous Mexican story of a young man, Juan Preciado, who journeys to a ghostly desert town in search of his absent father's youth, and thus a side of himself, is also a very dislocating experience. Narrators keep switching, and it's hard to nail down one character as having the central arc of the story. One minute, Juan is narrating in first person. The next minute his titular father, a real piece of murderous work, is ruling the storytelling from an entirely different time and perspective.

Time keeps shifting. Not only is this town ghostly, it's full of actual ghosts, as well as the squelched dreams of its people.

"Pedro Paramo" is the most worthy object of a new collaboration between the Goodman Theatre and Teatro Buendia of Havana (along with various other supportive parties). This is the very best kind of collaboration, in that the show that opened at the Goodman on Saturday night is not some jobbed-in tour but a new production featuring a mix of Havana- and Chicago-based actors (including Henry Godinez in the title role), all working under the direction of Godinez and Flora Lauten, the Cuban director whose work was most impressive when I saw it here in 2010, the year that Teatro Buendia brought "La Visita de la Vieja Dama" and "Charenton" to the Goodman's Latino Theatre Festival.

Although certainly an intriguing and enigmatic 90 minutes, "Pedro Paramo" is not up to the standard of those previous shows, although that's not an entirely fair comparison, since those were settled parts of the repertory and this is a work in progress. Very much so. Ideas abound, but the show has not yet fully gelled.

Part of the problem, at this juncture anyway, is the old lack-of-connection issue and a lot of different styles making up one show. The style of Teatro Buendia is more overtly and intensely theatrical than is the dominant aesthetic in Chicago; this production features white-face makeup and some very broad, out-there performances. These can be very potent at times, and all of the actors are game and gutsy, but this production seems to miss one of the most important features of this book: a real sense of the town, which is Comala, Mexico.

To do justice to the book (this adaptation is by Raquel Carrio), there has to be a sense of that place — be it dead or alive, or both at once. And although we get a strong sense of the individuals who make up that place, there is no real taste of the shared earth under everyone's feet. It's as if everyone is doing his or her own thing in some little bubble, as if all the actors went away and forged their characters in separate studios or workshops but then didn't spend enough time putting this creepy ville back together. Neither of the two main narrators (played by Sandor Menendez and Godinez) really grabs the story in any kind of dominant way to wrestle your attention from the milieu. Perhaps Godinez was a tad overextended by co-directing and also playing the lead, a tricky assignment. More likely, it's just the consequence of a piece in which everyone has a great time experimenting and collaborating (with some leading Chicago actors getting the rare chance to perform in Spanish at a major Chicago theater), but nobody really shaped the piece for an audience. And the material chosen is so complicated to track, it really needs some tough choices.

Much of the physical work is richly intense, which will be an ample reward for some. But much of the piece feels mushy and static; at times, it all seems to flatten out in a line and you get the sense that the actors are not quite sure how to unify these moments. And I was especially troubled by how Menendez's Juan, shortly after showing up in Comala, meets a fellow who could well be his brother (Pedro Paramo got around with a lot of women). Yet Juan seems to have no reaction to that at all, even though identity is such a part of his quest.

The physicality of the production, which has English supertitles, is most certainly arresting. The music, performed by Chicago's Sones de Mexico, is quite beautiful, although the cast features few singers. Clad mostly in white (no costume designer is credited) the actors move and sway amid great swaths of fabric, working with very little stuff, in the Teatro Buendia tradition.

There's no question that members of this cast, which features the capable likes of Sandra Delgado and Charin Alvarez from Chicago and Ivanesa Cabrera and Indira Valdes from Cuba, have learned from one another, and some images are arresting indeed. But where are the human consequences of a man who cut a broad swath from time, place, bodies, souls? Where is any sense of the world from which Juan emerges before arriving in such a surreal locale? That would better root us and give the work more contrast. And, most importantly, where is poor Comala, a town that seems to depict the shifts of life itself?


When: Through March 31

Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.

Running time: 1 hour, 30 mins.

Tickets: $14-32 at 312-443-3800 or

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